In the famous scene from Octopussy, Roger Moore, disguised as a crocodile, swims up to Lake Picchola, Udaipur, the hideaway of Octopussy (played by Maud Adams) and her beautiful cult members, whom he suspects to be involved with jewel smuggling.
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar in an interview with the British newspaper, The Times, recalls the three weeks in 1982 when Roger Moore, a dozen models and 200 cast members, crew and stuntmen and women came to live in the city’s famous floating Lake Palace to film Octopussy.
Actresses rowed daily in a barge to a nearby island altered to resemble an Arabian Nights harem. “My father had cocktails in the evenings for the cast,” he says. Moore remains the family’s favourite 007.
The film’s producers spent nearly a quarter of their budget of more than $25 million in India. Shopkeepers were paid to close their shops and become extras on set. “It was the event that put us on the map as a brand,” Shriji says. “People still talk about it.”
As a boy, Shriji played hide and seek in the palaces when they were still family homes. However, India’s independence took away royal sources of income and private purses were not enough to sustain such vast complexes. By the early 1960s Udaipur’s chandeliers and silk-bedecked buildings were in disarray and Shriji and his father opened the Lake Palace as a hotel. But there was no tourist infrastructure or airport, and it stood empty for years. In 1970 he leased it to Tata’s Taj hotels.
“Infrastructure started automatically as a fall out,” he says. Bond brought the publicity. “We had to do something drastic and think out of the box. A lot of maharajahs went the wrong way and sold off to survive, not for their future.”
Shriji worked in hotels in Manchester and America, where he washed dishes and took bookings. “I learnt all the systems from front office to how to answer a telephone.” He later leased out land to the Oberoi chain to build a five-star hotel. “I didn’t have deep enough pockets to change things on my own. That’s why I invited Taj and Oberoi. They made Udaipur a destination.” There are now five luxury hotels.
Since then the city has become a stalwart Bollywood location. Other Hollywood films have included The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
He has also opened a museum in the City Palace that employs 2,000 people and set up his own hotel group, HRH Group of Hotels, to manage a dozen properties. Tourist numbers topped one million earlier this year, putting Udaipur in the same league as the Houses of Parliament in London.
He faces challenges daily: ancient buildings with hundreds of rooms that need constant care; pollution in the lake; and the government’s new goods and services tax that has added to tourists’ costs. Visitor numbers to India are already lower than those for Turkey.
Shriji says that he knows when business has been good just by looking out over the bazaar. “My hotel room gets me $500 (Rs31,000) a day, but the tourist staying in it also spends another $500 elsewhere in the city,” he says. If he can see the lights of houses twinkling he knows everyone has been able to afford electricity.